Quilting As Social Justice

Opening Words

Utility quilts are made from scraps of fabric sewn together to create a warm coverlet. The quilt might include usable denim from Grandpa’s worn overalls, or the sash from Grandma’s apron, made from the sack originally used to hold flour or grain. Perhaps there is fabric from school dresses, and plaid work shirts and party clothes. Although the purpose of the quilt was for warmth, the quilter usually cut the pieces to form a pleasing pattern, using her creativity to bring beauty into her home. And the finished quilt held memories of people and times past, perhaps a history of a family through the years.
Our lives are like quilts. We inherited traits from our ancestors, and learned life lessons from our family, friends, and the communities in which we grew up. Sometimes the patterns that emerge are not what we expected. But like the quilts, we are held together by the love that surrounds us. The miracle of the quilt, and of life, is that all the odd pieces go together to make an object of beauty and durability which lasts and lasts.

The Sermon

When we started quilting several years ago, we never thought of it as a social justice project. A friend of a member of the church asked if we would meet once to make a few quilts for HIV+/AIDS orphans in Ethiopia. June Colburn is in the audience today, and she is a professional quilter and author who teaches quilting across the country. She had found a book containing a simple quilt pattern, perfect for a charity quilt, which you could finish in an hour. And she had contacts in Addis Ababa who could bring the quilts to an orphanage there. So a group of women from our church, some with little or no sewing experience, gathered together with donated fabric to test this pattern. Well, of course one quilt took more than an hour to finish, but we found that coming together was lots of fun, and we were creating something useful for others. So we decided to meet the following month, then we met every two weeks, and quickly we began meeting every week.

Our Tuesdays together are a great example of team-work and support. Many people who join us are not accomplished quilters, but come with a willingness to learn new skills, and there is always a place for them. The room is vibrant with activity and laughter. It is common to have 15 – 20 people around the lunch table.

Besides church members, our group has attracted community members who love to quilt, or are looking for a creative opportunity to give back to the community. My mother, who is 102 years old, comes with her companion to set the table and put out the pot luck lunch so that the quilters have more time to sew. We have had women do their required community service hours with us, and we have welcomed women who were in transition from a shelter toward independent living.

Not all our regular quilters are women. One fellow happened to be at church on a Tuesday, and was asked to help move tables and sewing machines. Of course he was willing to work for a home-cooked meal. He has since become our Treasurer, and now owns his second sewing machine. Another fellow started to come after the death of his wife. He plays wonderful cocktail lounge music on our piano while we work, enjoys the companionship of the quilters, and of course the home-cooked food.

Most of the fabric we use is donated, and our quilting program is now well-known in the larger community. When we have room for more fabric, we place requests in the Reader’s exchange of the St. Petersburg Times. Local newspaper writers are often looking for story ideas, and so there have been had several articles in both the Pinellas and Pasco editions of the Sun Coast News. An article, with photos of the children wrapped in their quilts, appeared in the Quilter’s World magazine, giving us national recognition. We have gotten to know owners of quilt shops, and they give us donations of slightly damaged fabric or outdated designs. It is not uncommon for someone to appear at our door with several bags or boxes of fabric on a Tuesday. We are like children at Christmas, opening our presents and exclaiming over the surprises we find.

Any quilter worth her salt has a large stash of fabric waiting to be used, and left-over quilt blocks and attempted projects. My husband doesn’t know about many of the places around the house where I have carved out an area for yet another box of fabric. So we do get donations from the closets of people who sew. But the origin of these fabric donations can be very poignant. A daughter might come in telling of her mother’s declining health or death, and find comfort that the remnants of her mother’s hobby will find a useful purpose. One woman quilted while she cared for her sick and homebound husband. When he died, she gave away all her fabric, half-finished quilts and supplies, not wanting to be reminded of the reasons she had quilted in the first place.

Our group has expenses. Although most of the fabric is donated, quilts also need batting, which we purchase. Batting is the center layer of each quilt. We have chosen to use a product made from about seven recycled plastic bottles that would otherwise end up in landfills. So in a small way we are trying to protect Mother Earth. We sell some quilts, primarily to members of the congregation. Some quilts are given to charitable organizations as fund raisers. And we do some commission work. A member of the congregation asked us to repair a quilt that had been made for her when she was born. She wanted to use it when her grandson came to visit. And we are piecing together a signature quilt inscribed with good wishes to a couple in our congregation that has just gotten married.

Getting the quilts to Ethiopia has been a challenge. We don’t mail them, as it is likely that they would be stolen in transit, not getting to their intended destination. So all the quilts are packed in suitcases and delivered personally to the orphanage. We work with an international corporation that has offices in Addis Ababa, and a commitment to support the communities in which they work with charitable activities. June Colburn has made several trips to Addis Ababa to deliver quilts. On her first visit there, she thought that she would spread out 10 quilts, then invite 5 children in to choose the quilt they liked the best. She quickly found out that these children had no concept of either choice or ownership. She ended up choosing the quilts for them. These children have no belongings, not even clothes of their own. On the day they get clean clothes, they line up by height. Clean outfits are arranged by size, and you get the outfit that is on the top of the pile when you reach the front of the line. So it is not unusual for a boy to wear a dress if that is what is available. The pictures of these smiling children wrapped in colorful quilts warms your heart. And their drab bedrooms, that hold dozens of bunk beds closely lined up together, became a riot of color, warmth and cheer. How could you not want to keep sewing for these children?

But then, because we were linked with quilters across the country, we started piling up more quilts then we could deliver. Our group has finished more than a thousand quilts in the last 2 years. So our quilting group decided to give quilts to homeless children in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

The number of homeless people in Pinellas County has been increasing in the last few years, in large part due to the economic problems in this country. More families with children are now homeless, along with an increased number of working poor. According to the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless, more than 33% of homeless adults work full or part time. About 23% receive disability, veterans or retirement benefits. According to the Homeless Count and Survey of 2009, the number of homeless men, women and children in our county was 6,235, which is a 20% increase from 2007. 31% of this total, or 1,944, were children under the age of 18. There are only 559 emergency shelter beds for individuals and families. The state of Florida has among the highest number of homeless people in the country. The Shepherd Center is the community service agency in Tarpon Springs. They provide hot meals every day of the year, and only 10% of the people they feed are homeless. It is difficult to believe that such a prosperous country as the United States should not be able to adequately care for and protect such a large number of our citizens.

Distributing our quilts locally can be a challenge, but fortunately there are public and private social agencies that welcome our donations. Both local counties have a program through the Department of Education called Students in Transition. Social workers in local schools identify homeless children, and see that they have transportation to their school of record so that their education is not interrupted to a great degree. Other children in their classes may not even be aware that these children are homeless, thus avoiding some of the stigma that could arise. These social workers also work with other community agencies to help stabilize these families. We have given baby quilts to a home for unwed mothers. We have even gone behind a Wal-Mart in the middle of the night, when the homeless come out of the woods to search for food in the dumpsters.
We almost never see the children receiving their quilts. But we hear the stories of how a little girl’s eyes light up when she opens her quilt to see ballet dancers in pink tutus, telling the giver that she has always wanted to learn to dance. Or the mother with tears in her eyes, knowing that a stranger cared enough to create this quilt for her child.

So does giving some of these children a bright colorful quilt help them find a bed to sleep in at night? No, of course not. We are not curing homelessness, but we are bringing to some of these homeless children a gift made with love, and the assurance that there are strangers in the world who care for them, and are working on many levels to bring equality to all.

One of the key issues of our Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Florida is working directly with legislators to urge greater assistance with services for the homeless of our state. So supporting this group sponsored by the Florida District is one constructive way for all of us to work toward reducing the number of homeless.

Our quilting group was nominated by our minister. Rev. Susanne Nazian for the Jim Barrett Social Justice Award. Much to our surprise, we received the award at the annual meeting of the Fl. District. It is easy to get caught up in local church events, and not get very involved in cluster, district, or national UUA activities. And so I was not aware of the Social Justice Award, and never thought we would qualify for it. Just last week one of our regular members asked why our quilting was considered a social justice project.

So let’s try to define social justice. Of course our UU Principles include the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and the goal of a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.
A general definition of social justice is hard to arrive at and even harder to implement. In essence, social justice is concerned with equal justice, not just in the courts, but in all aspects of society. This concept demands that people have equal rights and opportunities; everyone, from the poorest person on the margins of society to the wealthiest deserves an even playing field.

According to the Catholic Church, the moral test of any society is "how it treats its most vulnerable members. The poor have the most urgent moral claim on the conscience of the nation. People are called to look at public policy decisions in terms of how they affect the poor." And of course these ideas are based on the teachings of Jesus, who was always concerned about the needs of the poor, the sick, the members of society who were looked down upon. Pope Leo 13, published the encyclical On the Condition of the Working Classes in 1891. The Pope advocated that the role of the State was to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony.

Doug King, editor and WebWeaver, The Witherspoon Society of the Presbyterian Church USA, wrote that Social justice provides the foundation for a healthy community. It grows out of our sense that each person — each created being — has value. Only as we recognize the value and dignity of each person can we build a healthy community, so it's a slow, painful process of learning and growing. To help the process along we develop attitudes of respect for one another. We also shape policies and patterns of behavior to protect and enhance the worth of each person. We do this by building governmental and economic structures, educational and religious institutions, and all the other systems that provide for health and social welfare. This justice is not a goal that we'll ever reach, but a process, a struggle in which we can be engaged through all the pain and all the joy.

The Florida District Social Justice award is named after Lt. Col. James Barrett, a member of the UU congregation in Pensacola, Fl. Jim Barrett served in the Air Force during WW II and the Korean War. He was an active member of the National organization for Women, and must have known that there were risks to himself and his family as he lived his faith. Jim Barrett was shot and killed July 29, 1994, at the age of 74, while serving as a personal escort at a Pensacola women’s clinic. A physician, John Baynard Britton, was also killed, and June Barrett, Jim’s wife, was injured in the same incident. They were shot by Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister. Mr. Hill was the first person to be put to death in the US for anti-abortion violence. He never showed any remorse for having taken two lives.

None of us may ever be in a position to give up our lives fighting for our beliefs, but there are many ways we can work for social justice. Gestures of kindness, writing a check, volunteering to support a cause, all qualify. For all you do to work for equality and justice for all, I thank you.

Can you touch a prayer? Can you pull it close and feel its comfort? You can if it’s
part of a quilt. We are connected to each other like the fabric and stitches in these quilts. We will go out from here and we will return
Weaving our spirits together with the many colors of our love.
Go now in peace.


  © Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, 2015